Art and Culture in Nepal
The art and culture of Nepal is and always has been strongly influenced by the religious beliefs of the country. The artwork is decorative, delicate and very beautiful. Nepal art is strongly influenced by the culture of the people and the two really go together and are interwoven. The two most typical forms of art are that of paintings and sculptures. Nepal art and culture has changed little over the centuries though western influences are slowly starting to affect some modern artists.
The earliest examples of Nepalese art in painted form is that of manuscript illustrations found on palm leaves. This tradition goes far back into the past and the earliest known illustrated manuscript is the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita which is dated 1015 AD. Often the wooden covers which were created to protect the manuscript-painted leaves are more lavishly decorated that the actual manuscript. Many examples of this type of art have survived and are quite well preserved. The influence that religion has on such artwork is evident in the fact that such manuscripts are usually only decorated with figures of divinities. In fact, all surviving illustrated manuscripts are illustrated with images of gods and goddesses, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or Hindu in origin. Oftentimes certain manuscripts – along with the relevant imagery – would be copied and donated to a monk, priest, monastery or temple. Thus the style of painting remained fairly constant and painting quality was maintained for a long period of time. Eventually stylistic quality did start to deteriorate – especially on paper manuscripts. For this reason older paintings are usually held in higher regard than more modern manuscripts of lower quality.
Another form of painting that has been evident in Nepal since time immemorial is that of Thangka Paintings. These were primarily religious in nature and were used as icons in worship. Known as Paubha in Newari and Thangka in Tibetan, it is most likely that these paintings originated in Nepal. The creation of illuminated wall paintings or religious metal sculptures was in big demand at one stage and this spawned an ‘industry’ of skilled artisans who catered to the demand by initiating the painting of such icons on cloth which could be rolled up and easily transported. Widely received with much praise, these thangka paintings made their way into homes and monasteries in the ninth century and are still popular today. A good example of a thangka painting is the ‘Mandala of Vishnu’ which dates back to 1420 AD. Early thangkas are simple in design and consist of a centrally positioned large deity surrounded by smaller figures of lesser importance.
From around the 15th century, the Tantric cult started to take hold of the people of the land. Artists started to use brighter colors and there was a tendency towards the portrayal of Shiva and Shakti in various conventional poses. Because of the esoteric nature of Tantrism, a strong emphasis was put on the female element and sexuality during this time. The thangkas produced where said to possess magic forces and a great variety of symbols where incorporated into the artwork.
Sculpture has enjoyed a long and interesting history in Nepal and many carved artefacts have been found in the Terai region of the country. All early sculptures are religious in nature and the artists themselves also seemed to be extremely devoted to their various deities. Whilst early sculptures may seem somewhat rudimentary in comparison, those from the Lichchhavi period are strikingly beautiful. Made from stone, copper and bronze, these sculptures depict round faces and slanted eyes. There is a lot of attention to detail whilst still presenting the deity in a simplistic way. The use of clothing and ornaments were always kept to a minimum and often the subject wears only a dhoti or sanghatis. The Lichchhavi period (5-8 CE) is seen by many as being the Golden Age of Nepalese sculpture and many excellently excavated and preserved examples can be found.
Woodcarving, whilst not in always in ornamental form, also served a decorative purpose in ancient Nepal and thus is viewed as an art form by many. Windows, doors, temples roof-struts and numerous artefacts where all carved by hand and many can still be seen in the Kathmandu valley today. Wood is not as long-lasting as stone and so examples do not date back further than the 14th century yet wood carving continues to be a very prominent aspect of Nepalese architecture.
Nepalese art work has had far reaching effects on other cultures. The first major introduction of local art to other cultures occurred in the 7th century AD when Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to Tibet under the order of the reining king Angshuvarma. A large number of monasteries were subsequently built and these all needed to be filled with manuscripts and sculptures. Today some of the most outstanding examples of Nepalese art can be found in Tibet. Nepal’s artistic influence even cross the borders of China when Nepalese artisans were sent to the courts of Chinese emperors to impart their knowledge to local crafters and to create artworks at their bidding. The most exemplary contribution of this nature was made by the innovator and architect Balbahu or ‘Arniko’, who’s many creations can still be found to this day.
Like their various art forms, Nepal culture is also intrinsically intertwined with their many religious beliefs. Hinduism and Buddhism are the two major religions of Nepal and observers of these various faiths enjoy a sense of fellow-feeling by worshiping many of the same gods. You will find that many customs and traditions stem from deity worship related to these two faiths. Various festivals related to religious beliefs are celebrated across the country and deeply influence the lives of many of the people living here. Dress, grooming and decorative jewelry is also influenced by religion. Foreigners may find it difficult to comprehend why Nepalese people hold to their beliefs and traditions but the religious nature of the culture has to be thoroughly explored in order for them to better understand various matters. For the Nepalese people, it is a way of life – not a choice of how to live. Clearly the art and culture of Nepal is best experienced and understood in the country where it is very much a part of the lives of those who live there and embrace it.